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A New Chinese Revolution

China is a nation to take your breath away. It has a huge population, a history of civilization that stretches back thousands of years – and some of the worst pollution in the world. But it isn’t just the air that’s filthy and obnoxious there. So, unfortunately, are politics and bureaucracy.

Corruption has always been a problem in China and the Communist revolution in 1949 didn’t change that. Ordinary people are at a big disadvantage when they face powerful officials and dishonest businesses. This applies in every area of life, but it also applies in death. Organizing the burial or cremation of a loved one isn’t a pleasant business anywhere, but in China it’s made worse by the greedy and unscrupulous behaviour of the funeral industry.

The profits to be made are immense – it’s estimated that nearly 100,000 people die every year in the Chinese capital Beijing alone – and many vultures are there to snap them up. Funeral businesses are interested in money and they don’t care about the feelings of the bereaved or about the quality of the service they offer. If the costs of funerals are rising fast in Britain, they’re rising even faster in China, where funeral plots can sell for up to £35,000 a square metre.

But two honest Chinese businessmen, Wang Dan and Xu Yi, are trying to change that by starting a new Chinese revolution. This time, they want to revolutionize the funeral industry. As reported in the Guardian newspaper in September 2015, they want to challenge the big cumbersome bureaucracy of organizing a funeral by doing as much as possible on the internet. Instead of dealing with uncaring officials and profit-hungry funeral parlours, ordinary people will be able to tour a well-designed website and make their choices in their own time and in their own homes.

That way Wang and Xu would be able to keep costs down and concentrate on offering the best possible service to the customers they hoped to attract. It was tough in the beginning, because they couldn’t manufacture everything for themselves and faced incompetence and poor service when they ordered funeral goods from existing suppliers. They had to adjust their plans and face the hostility of already established funeral businesses, who weren’t happy at the thought that their easy profits and corrupt practices were being challenged.

But Wang and Xu are persevering and slowly carving out business for themselves. Their ambitions stretch beyond funerals, however. They also want to change the way Chinese people think about death, because many superstitions and taboos still exist. Although Chinese is officially an atheist communist state whose ideology does not accept the idea of spirits or an afterlife, communism has not be able to sweep away ancient ideas and customs. There is confusion in the popular mind about the best way to face illness and dying.

China also has great traumas in its recent history. The Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989, in which hundreds of pro-democracy protestors were killed by the Chinese army, was not an unusual event by Chinese standards. In the 1960s England was enjoying the music of the Beatles and celebrating the World Cup victory. At the same time China was experiencing the horrific violence and upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. In the previous decade, many millions of people died in famines caused by Mao Zedong’s attempts to create a new China and impose different methods of agriculture. That troubled history has never gone away and it’s little wonder that many Chinese people are fearful of death and superstitious about avoiding the bad luck that it brings.

Looking at China from Britain, we have to be grateful for our own funeral industry, which is well-regulated and honest and doesn’t place additional burdens on grieving friends and relatives. Funeral costs are rising here, but nowhere near as fast as they are in China. And British funeral businesses are taking full advantage of the internet to offer their customers the best possible choices in funeral plans. We should wish Wang Dan and Xu Yi all the best in bringing the same high standards to China.